Ankles painted red with clay, we’d pound our chests like timpanis, comparing the shape and depth of our blisters and calluses against each other. Anyone who thought we were twins was victim to our fool, my name escaping your lips from across the court. Bright yellow fuzz we’d find in unexpected places hours after we were finished. We’d laugh loud and ask just how it could’ve gotten there. We’d brace for cold showers on hot mornings underneath the unforgiving sun, for suicides and spider drills and you asking our coach why the conditioning exercises always had such violent names. The day after you quit I saw an actual spider on the lip of the baseline and pounded it flat into the clay with my racket.
Category: Winter 2021
Pops and crackles on God’s gray Earth herald men and their tires, balding in unison, leaning back and over pebbles in the gravel lot, and coughing dust hot behind them. and I, in a low cinderblock building with a veil of sunlight spotlighting dirt and dust feather-falling to the linoleum, watch through a grime clouded storefront while the radio beside me and a fly far off somewhere, ducking behind rows of dusty snacks struggle to see who can drone the loudest the bell above the door announces guests: farmers caked in clay nod toward loose cigarettes our hesitant exchange strung together by broken words in the other’s language. and a gray-haired man that could be my father all knobbed joints and trembling fingers scrapes daily at a lotto ticket with a filthy coin that matches a lonely tooth gleaming in his face like watery eyes looking at something far off he leaves even poorer and above the door, a stroke of orange at dusk paints the bell and I hit the jackpot every time
I. When we moved in, my parents thought the tree in our backyard was dead or dying; its peeling bark evoked an ear of corn not quite shucked, a natural edge run ragged. We would soon learn that the shagbark hickory is not born with shag in its bark; but grows into it. It is the story of age as paring knife, bark as shed skin. II. I let my first whitehead ripen until my mother snipped pus fruit off the vine with flesh between pinched fingers, a pop. This is how rite became passage of time, and how I could not help but pick and poke and prod and pop each bump, raze what was raised into submission, into scar. Keep squeezing after all the pus is out, just to be sure, or just so that a steady drip of blood may follow. Two birds, smooth your face and yourself, one faucet running red. III. There is a beetle in my sink. It scuttles out of the drain so rapidly I can imagine the ratatattat of legs on porcelain. The urgency of an ugly thing. We know each other, beetle and I, beetle who could crawl into an oversized pore and shimmy under my skin, hatch eggs in my cheek and excrete itself in pus. An ugliness that can spiral back down the drain. IV. When we moved in, my parents thought the tree in our backyard was dead or dying, and so peeling bark was tempting for idle hands to pry off. To leave a scar behind: a reddish-gray gash, a nakedness. When Caliban looked in the glass did he too see Ham? Are there pimples on the cheeks of forests? The beetle living under my skin laughs at me. No, it says. And still they grow.
Part I: Miro
Miro stared at the clock in agony, cursing at himself for signing up for an intermediate-level drawing class without any experience in art. He shifted uncomfortably in his stool as the teacher — who had demanded that everyone call her by her first name, Bethany — sighed a gush of peppermint that made his eyes sting. He did his best not to stare straight down her shirt, but the angle at which she had positioned herself, leaning loose-waisted over the opposite edge of his desk so that her opal pendant stared at him like the eye of a cyclops, made it almost impossible.
“You know what I love about your work, Miro?” her voice shifted down an octave in pitch and a few notches in volume. “I love the texture of your drawings.” She elongated the ex. The words dripped from her mouth. She laid a palm on the edge of his drawing sheet and pushed it straight down the center. The charcoal smudged in a linty streak following the trail of her hand.
“It has such a lovely feel to it.” She held up his sketchbook for everyone to see. “Can’t you feel it just from looking?” The class stared back blankly. A couple students indulged her with a slight nod. Bethany returned the sketchbook to Miro. “Excellent work, Miro. Keep it up.” She winked.
He looked around. Everyone’s papers were the same, and had to have the same texture. She probably couldn’t think of anything else to say about his drawing.
The sole reason he had enrolled in Drawing II sat three stools away from him, looking an earthy sort of beautiful in her baggy grey sweater. Miro glanced over at Darcy, trying to read the flat line of her mouth. When she caught sight of him staring, she smirked and rolled her eyes at Bethany.
Looking at Darcy always made Miro’s gut feel like it was levitating in his torso, like if he stared too long, he might burst with affection. He calmed himself and went back to sketching.
The art teacher was tall and slender, and wore tight black skinny jeans. Everything about her seemed to climb upward toward the sky. Her eyelashes reached so far up her face that they seemed to prop up her perfectly penciled eyebrows like the legs of a table. The cuffs of her leather boots clung to her knees, a short distance away from where her hips swung like a pendulum whenever she walked. Even the way she spoke seemed to be reaching for something; her voice lilted upward at the end of each word, as if everything that came out of her mouth were a question.
“Everything exists in relation to its surroundings,” she whispered, “The pencil’s length is only a small fraction of the desk’s, just as we are smaller parts of the universe.”
Bethany had set a cardboard box atop a table at the center of the room. Above the box was an arrangement of random objects: a selection of knobby orange squash, soda cans, crinkled paper bags. The desks wreathed the centerpiece, facing inward.
“Let’s start with some gesture drawings,” she announced, clapping her hands softly. Her dozens of thick metal rings clicked against one another.
She circled the room like a vulture, explaining the importance of acting on instinct. An artist needed to trust intuition and let his eyes guide his hands. She glanced at Miro as she said this, and Darcy stifled a snort.
Fifteen minutes into class, the door opened and a bearded man entered. He was large, hirsute, with porous, splotchy skin that resembled an old, discarded lemon peel.
Bethany stared at him with pursed lips and spread her nimble fingers over the center of her chest. “Can we help you?”
“I’m the model. You must be Bethany.”
There was a pause. A look that resembled panic crept into Bethany’s face, starting with her twitching brow and crawling down into the curves of her frown. Eventually, it melted into a tired recognition. She let a puff of air out of her nose while stretching and snapping an elastic smile. “The model. Yes, of course. Let me get you set up.”
Bethany led the man to the storage closet at the back of the classroom. The class remained silent, and some kids exchanged confused looks and shrugs.
Darcy texted Miro wtf.
He responded idk.
Bethany returned a few moments later with her usual silky calm demeanor.
“Jerry will be set up here for those of you who’d like to… Incorporate his form… Into the still-life.”
She pushed the cardboard box setup over to the side and wheeled a wooden stage into the center of the room. Jerry emerged from the storage closet sporting a bright orange kimono. There were swirls of gaudy cherry blossoms detailed on its hem. The man’s red beard had been sectioned off into tiny braids with neon beads woven in here and there. He mounted the stage, swinging his leg up and revealing his lack of underpants. He shed the robe and positioned himself.
Darcy stared at Miro, her eyes wide with horror. Miro shook his head in disbelief.
Though the students tried their hardest to focus on the assortment of inanimate objects that were originally meant to be the subjects of their drawings, Jerry seemed to be doing the most he possibly could to retain the full attention of his audience. He struck poses with such violence that his muscles shook, his flabs of skin quivering like the ears of a hound facing the breeze of an open car window.
Bethany would interrupt now and then to give students individual advice.
“Mind if I…” she would say, already reaching for a stub of charcoal and leaning over the student to get a better angle at their drawing.
When she leaned over Miro, the tips of her wavy blond hair grazed his forearm, her breath warmed his shoulder, and the smell of lavender essential oil and patchouli wafted into his nostrils. Her opal pendant bumped his earlobe twice.
“There, see? Like this.” Miro nodded uncertainly. He saw Darcy raise her eyebrows.
“The art teacher wants you,” Darcy snickered as the two of them made their way down the steps after class ended.
Miro shook his head. “She wants everyone. She exudes sex.”
“More often than not, it’s channeled at you.”
“What, are you jealous?”
Darcy punched him lightly with an arm that jangled a dozen thin gold hoops. “Of you, not her. I want someone to look at me like that.”
Miro’s skin tingled. He’d been in love with Darcy for three years now. They had slept together once, when she stayed the night in his dorm room after a party a few months before. A week later, he had asked Darcy on a date — a date date, as he shyly explained to her — and she laughed and shook her head.
“You kill me, Miro,” was all she had responded with. Then he let her walk away, her black ponytail swishing like a wagging finger.
After class, they sat on a patch of grass at the corner of the campus’ main plaza with cups of iced coffee that Miro had insisted on buying. Other students biked by trying to make it on time for their next classes. A tour group was being herded by the corner of the lawn where Darcy and Miro were spread out peacefully.
“What was your SAT score?” a parent was in the middle of asking. She was a mother with a platinum bob, her arms folded across her chest with a brochure clenched in one of her well-manicured claws. The tour guide tried to avoid the question unsuccessfully.
“Seems like a miserable job,” Darcy mumbled. “Being a tour guide, I mean.”
Miro nodded slowly, “You know what seems like a miserable job? Nude modeling for college art classes.”
Darcy laughed, sucking up the last bit of coffee at the bottom of her cup and rattling the leftover ice. “That Jerry guy must be pretty sure of himself to be able to flash his junk at a group of twenty-somethings.”
Miro hummed his agreement. “Good for him, I guess.”
During their first-year orientation, Miro saw Darcy for the first time sitting at a picnic table with a sack of mandarin oranges. Clusters of eager freshmen darted around like dragonflies, trying to make as many friends as possible within the first hours of college. They wore lanyards with flimsy name tags screaming their names and hometowns in bubble letters, and chased after anyone else they saw doing the same.
Amid the chaos, Darcy sat alone. Her lanyard was tossed aside. Having things around her neck, she later explained, made her throat itchy.
Darcy was tan with long dark hair and lots of piercings. Two silver hoops hugged her left nostril in parallel, and her ears were stickered with glinting earrings shaped like stars and moons. She wore eyeliner that framed her coppery pupils in thick black. Her navy blue nail polish was chipping so that the leftover paint on each nail looked like the shape of a country.
At the table, she wrestled a mandarin from its netty sack and stuck her thumb into its navel. The scent erupted in the air, pooling out with the light breeze.
Miro tried to think of charming ways to start a conversation. He wanted to come up with a joke about the mandarins. All that came to mind, however, was that somewhere fifteen or so miles away in suburban California, the placenta that he had been birthed with was buried under a mandarin tree for good luck, because his mother was a strong believer in harbingers and superstitions. He couldn’t start off with that.
“Want one?” Darcy asked as she popped a section of her orange into her mouth. Miro hadn’t realized she’d noticed him.
“I took them from one of the activity tables.” she explained, swinging one of the mandarins in front of her twice, mimicking the toss that she was offering.
He caught it in one hand. “Thanks.”
Sitting across from her, he quietly peeled his fruit. He asked if she was a freshman, too.
She nodded at the lanyard that sat next to her. He read the nametag aloud, “Darcy. Like in—”
“Pride and Prejudice. No, not like that one.”
“Like what then?”
She shrugged, peeling another orange.
“Where are you from?” he tried.
“I grew up in Florida.”
“I guess that explains why you like oranges so much.”
“I like mandarins,” she corrected him. “Oranges are too aggressive.”
Miro sat in awkward silence. He thought about leaving her be, but was exhausted from having the same three conversations over and over that day and had nowhere else to go. Plus, Darcy was pretty.
“My placenta is buried under a mandarin tree,” he blurted. He looked up at Darcy hesitantly, and his gaze met with the white flash of her teeth. Her smile dimpled her cheeks and tucked her makeup into the thin creases by her eyes.
“So is this some twisted form of cannibalism?” she laughed.
“Yeah, I mean… Circle of life,” he said, loosening up.
“Are you quoting a Disney movie?”
“It was actually Jane Austen,” Miro joked. He relaxed, and let it show. Resting his elbows on the table, he leaned in and looked up at her from under his hair in a way that he thought was flirty. She grinned, offering him another mandarin. He made a silent wish on it, hoping he could make her smile like that at least once a day.
During the next two years, Miro and Darcy remained close. They ate meals together in the dining halls regularly, crammed essays and projects in the library late at night, and ran errands at the local shopping mall in the janky, rusting car that Miro bought too enthusiastically off Craigslist.
For Miro’s birthday, Darcy gave him a necklace that she had wrapped with a scrap of newspaper. The pendant was a small metal disk with spirals engraved on its face. Miro never took it off. Over the course of many months, the cheap metal began to turn bronze and stain his skin gray in a blurry line around the back of his neck. He developed a habit of reaching for the little disk, flipping and pressing it with his fingers absentmindedly throughout the day. Sometimes he’d put it between his lips and let it sit there until he moved enough to make it fall out.
Halfway through their junior year, Miro declared his major in biochemistry, and Darcy chose graphic design. She spent her afternoons outside, sketching in her notebook in the sun, carrying around her tablet so she could work on her digital compositions at every moment of stillness. Sometimes she’d draw comics of Miro as a lizard navigating life with one missing leg.
“Why a lizard? And what happened to my leg?” he demanded.
“Would you rather a snake?” Darcy doodled his scaly avatar sunbathing on a beach. “Snakes don’t have legs to begin with.”
Miro pouted. “What am I doing now?”
Darcy had started a new panel that featured the lizard digging through what looked to be a pile of dirt.
“I think you’re confusing lizards with dogs,” Miro sighed, knitting his fingers together and stretching his arms above his head.
“You’re looking for your buried placenta.”
Miro smiled childishly, pleased that she remembered. “It’s supposed to be under a tree.”
“Draw it yourself, then.”
“I can’t draw.”
“Then learn. Take a class with me.”
The closest Miro had ever gotten to sketching was penciling in the squares of his graph paper while struggling with math problems, but the thought of being in a class with Darcy, sitting at a bench sketching their homework, was enough for him to sign up for Drawing II that very night.
The next art assignment was an abstract piece representing desire.
“This piece is completely open to interpretation. Feel the heat and let it guide you, let your creative juices flow,” Bethany sang.
Two minutes in, Darcy had already produced a masterpiece, a beautiful composition of warm swirling colors and geometric shapes.
Miro couldn’t draw a straight line, even with a ruler. He scrapped the first draft of his drawing and tried again on a new sheet of paper. He had finally produced a single squiggle that he was somewhat satisfied with when the classroom door swung open.
A bespectacled young man stood in the threshold, the sunlight from outside flexing around him and bleaching the floor.
“Bethany? Is there a Bethany here? So sorry I’m late.”
The whole class gaped at the lanky man in his wool turtleneck. Bethany paused the smooth jazz that she had started playing from a bluetooth speaker.
“I am she. And you are… The model, I presume.”
“That’s me. Where should I set up?”
Bethany gestured at the wooden stage, and the model helped her wheel it over to the center.
She giggled, but her voice was woven with a thread of uncertainty. “I forgot that there was a model coming today! Silly, silly,” she chirped. “Class, do your best to incorporate, um—” She beckoned at the model.
“Adam!” The man in the sweater chimed in and bowed.
“Adam. Great. Do your best to work Adam’s figure into your interpretive pieces.”
“Do we have to?” Darcy groaned quietly. She was nearly finished already.
“Do what you can,” Bethany smiled.
Miro looked back at the single graphite mark that sliced the center of his page in half. He started drawing what he thought resembled Adam’s head just underneath it.
Miro was struggling. When he signed up for this art class, he hadn’t cared in the slightest if his drawings looked like shit — it was an elective course that he wasn’t even taking for a letter grade, and he had no interest in becoming an artist. He hadn’t expected to develop deep embarrassment over his lack of skill and a looming sense of dread every time he had to present his work.
When it was his turn for a class-wide critique, students gawked at the misshapen lumps scribbled onto his paper, not knowing where to begin with their feedback. One person mistook his still life of flowers for an abstract interpretation of explosive anger.
“I guess I thought the petals were supposed to be like fireworks,” the girl had said after he had explained it to her.
Worst of all was the look on Darcy’s face. It wasn’t disapproval or contempt, more like a quiet but obvious exasperation. He felt guilty for making her take a lower-level class with him.
Miro attended Bethany’s office hours one day, wanting to improve without Darcy’s help. Bethany finished talking to the last student from her previous class before directing her attention to him.
“Hello, hello, handsome fellow!” She perched herself atop one of the nearest tables and swung her legs expectantly. “How can I help you?”
“I wanted to get some extra practice in.”
“Wonderful! Why don’t you take out your sketchbook.”
Bethany set up miniature statues on a nearby desk, shuffling them around and switching the angles of the light source from time to time. She went over tips for finding forms, recognizing negative space, and estimating proportions, all from less than a foot away.
“Is art something you want to pursue in the future, Miro?” Bethany asked him.
He let out a snort. “No, I just wanted to—” he started to say, but stopped himself.
“You just wanted to…?”
Miro exhaled. “I wanted to impress a girl. Or something.”
Bethany breathed a laugh that tinkled like a wind chime. She smiled knowingly. “Of course you do, honey. Is it working?”
He shook his head defeatedly and stared at his paper, “Not with drawings like this. At this rate, I’d be better off as one of the models.”
Bethany’s eyes narrowed. “You could try that, you know.”
“You could model for a class I’m teaching in thirty minutes.”
Miro stared blankly. “You mean nude?”
“Well, as nude as you’re comfortable with.”
She furrowed her brows as though offended. “Why not? I used to model all the time in college! It’s an excellent way to gain confidence!”
“I really don’t think—”
“Come with me, it’s just a building over. You can decide when we get there.” It was more of a command than a suggestion. Miro packed up his stuff and followed her out nervously.
In the neighboring building, Bethany led Miro down the hallway, tossing a bright “Come on!” over her shoulder every now and then to keep him moving. When they arrived at the classroom, Bethany opened the door to reveal twelve senior citizens stationed at various easels around the room. There were walkers and canes strewn about them.
“I teach the elderly every Tuesday at five. Isn’t that wonderful?” she twittered.
“See? There’s nothing to be intimidated by here.” She leaned in and added, “Some of them can barely even see!” Then, turning her attention to the class, she shouted, “Good afternoon, everyone!” Some appeared to have heard her. “Instead of doing our usual still life exercise today, we’ll be drawing Miro, here.”
A combination of adrenaline and sheer pressure made Miro gravitate toward the small stage at the center of the room. A few students turned to look at him. Bethany motioned for him to mount the stage. He did so uncertainly, removing his jacket, and after an encouraging nod from Bethany, his shirt. He shot her a look of panic and waited for her to explain what to do.
“Miro will be holding a pose for one minute at a time, starting now.”
Miro was mortified, his cheeks flushing, his underarms sweating. He stuck an arm above his head awkwardly and did his best to hold still, gazing at a crack he found at the corner of the back wall to distract himself. His arm started to tingle, then to burn, then to hurt. He shook it out a few times before returning it to its position over his head. He wondered if people could see his sweat.
“One minute is up! Next pose.”
Miro scrambled to rearrange himself in a sitting position, leaning back on one arm and resting the other over a bent knee as naturally as he thought possible. This time, he hesitantly looked out at his audience.
He expected that everyone’s gaze trained on his body would plunge him further into humiliation, but he noticed as the students’ cloudy eyes traced his face and limbs, they weren’t really looking at him. Like the miniature statues or the knobby looking squash that Bethany used as models, they were simply internalizing his form, with no judgment or contemplation other than how to connect one line to the next, how much space to leave between one mark and the other. He relaxed a little.
By his fifth minute, he was settling into a rhythm. He reorganized his limbs in ways that he thought were interesting, without being too uncomfortable, crossing one leg over the other, turning his head one way and then the next. He no longer thought about the people drawing him, but rather what position he should assume next.
When the exercise was over, he felt good. A few of the elderly had completed beautiful sketches. Some could hardly see the paper, and ended up with a few unintelligible marks, but even those impressed and touched him.
He thanked Bethany, who called him “a natural” and told him to come back soon, winking. Then he left the classroom feeling light.
“You did what?” Darcy gasped, already bursting into laughter.
“I’m not kidding!” Miro told her about the class while eating lunch in a dining hall the following day.
“What possessed you to become a nude model? Did Bethany seduce you? Oh my god, don’t tell me she blackmailed you.”
“I told you I wasn’t nude. And it was a one time thing.”
“Okay, but why’d you do it?”
Miro paused, he felt oddly defensive. “I don’t know, she seemed to really want me to. It was honestly kind of fun. The old people were nice and some of them made cool drawings. Plus, it’s like a… Confidence thing.” He shifted uncomfortably.
“You posed for old people to boost your confidence?”
He felt his frustration growing, his cheeks flushing. “Yeah, I did.”
“Oh, come on. You don’t need to work on confidence.”
“How would you know that?” He couldn’t stop himself from blurting.
“Miro, please. You’re fine as you—”
“I mean, I’m obviously not good enough for you.”
“Tell me I’m wrong.”
“What are you—”
“I’m not good enough for you.” He had stopped bringing up the fact that they had slept together, since Darcy never responded to it. The confusion and agitation and affection and longing puffed and deflated in his chest like a balloon depending on what day of the week it was. Some days he could hardly contain it, and wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her. Other days, he was content just knowing she existed at all.
He hated loving her. His life and their friendship would be easier if he didn’t. But whether it was her pretty face that seemed to get prettier each day, her dry sense of humor, or the way she started talking three times more quickly when he brought up things that she was passionate about, his feelings for her weren’t fading. He felt the balloon of frustration grow and grow, until it reached its limit and slowly deflated in defeat. There was no sense in scaring her away. He exhaled.
“Never mind. Sorry. I’m in a weird mood.” He ran his fingers through his hair.
Darcy gazed at him and said, “Okay.” She didn’t bring it up again.
Part II: Darcy
Darcy wasn’t clueless. She knew Miro was in love with her. A big part of her desperately wanted to fall in love with him, too, but the other half knew that it was more out of convenience than real desire. He was handsome and tall, with a humble but keen sense of style that made him look like a kid who might play bass in some starry-eyed indie pop band. His curly hair and kind brown eyes were soft accents to his boyish friendliness, and he tended to her with a quiet focus and care that no one ever had before.
But no matter how hard she fixated on Miro’s wonderful qualities or how compatible they were, when he was around, she didn’t feel the swells of nervous energy that she associated with attraction. She felt comfortable in the way one would with a best friend or close family member. After weeks of uncertainty over her own feelings, sleeping with him only cemented that reality, and from then on she avoided acknowledging that it had ever happened.
The memory of that night after the party crossed her mind as the two of them walked back from a dining hall one afternoon. Darcy felt languid and contemplative.
She looked at Miro, thinking to herself that he was good-looking — cute, even — but the thought sat weightlessly in her head, and when he smiled at her goofily all she could think of was that he once laughed so hard in the dining hall that milk shot out of his nose and he spent the rest of the afternoon smelling like sour cream. She grinned back.
On the other side of the walkway, she noticed a man in a bright orange vest stoop over the edge of a fountain. He had a bucket in one gloved hand, and his other wielded a massive blue net.
“What’s that guy up to?” she wondered aloud.
They watched the worker as he dipped his net into the shallow water and stirred it around. When he lifted it over the surface, it chinked with dozens of wet pennies. He shook them off before emptying the net into the bucket, and after a few minutes of collecting, he lifted the bucket and carried it away.
“Where do you think he’s taking the money?” Darcy asked. She passed the fountain multiple times a day on her way from one class to another, and had frequently seen people tossing coins in it as part of a campus tradition. She had never thought about anyone cleaning the coins out.
“Maybe it gets sprinkled into the university’s endowment,” Miro offered.
“Or maybe he takes it for himself.”
“People make wishes on those coins.”
Miro stuck out his lower lip to blow a strand of hair away from his forehead. “You know what they say. One man’s wish is another man’s burden.”
Darcy smirked, “Who said that?”
“Plato. Or was it Pacino?”
She rolled her eyes and went back to staring at the man. “Have you ever made a wish at that fountain?”
Miro nodded. “Have you?”
“Nope. What’d you wish for?”
“If I tell you, it won’t come true.”
“Okay,” Miro huffed. “What would you wish for?”
“For world peace. Or more money.”
“You’re a real hero.”
“I prefer ‘saint.’”
“Those are cop-out answers. You have to wish for something real.”
“The first thing that comes to mind the second you toss the coin. It’s a psychological thing. ”
“According to whom?”
“Freud. Or maybe it was Fallon.”
“Stop doing that.”
Miro’s eyes widened, and he ducked behind Darcy’s right shoulder. Bethany was making her way up the path to the bookstore on the opposite side of the plaza. She wore a black hat with an enormous brim and sunglasses that covered nearly half of her face. Her wispy blonde hair flew around in tendrils, glowing eerily in the sun. She moved more hastily than her usual bendy strut allowed.
“Should we say hi?” Darcy smirked.
“Please don’t,” Miro sighed, “The last time I saw her I was shirtless for the elderly.” He let his face drop onto Darcy’s shoulder and shook his head into it. She felt his curls tickle her neck. She patted the top of his head before playfully shoving it off.
Another nude model interrupted their drawing class.
Bethany gave the same fluttery speech about forgetting the modeling schedule, but there was something off about the way she carried herself. She spoke flatly and briskly, not bothering to help the woman get situated. When the model asked about setting up the stage, Bethany tensed, telling her to just do whatever she pleased in a tone that was almost cold, and went back to helping the student she had been working with before the class was interrupted.
The model was a beautiful young woman with reddish hair, pale, freckled limbs, and voluptuous curves. She showed up just as Darcy had finished laying out the groundwork for her midterm piece. Darcy did her best to squeeze the model’s body into a corner of the composition, but no matter how she adjusted the figure’s pose or dimensions, it sat on the page with an unnatural, layered disjointedness that made her want to rip her own hair out. She was relieved when the class ended.
That evening, Darcy and Miro worked on art homework in Miro’s room.
Darcy finished her sketches long before he did.
“Draw me while you wait, then,” he suggested.
“I’m fresh out of inspiration for lizard doodles.”
“No, like a real portrait. Draw me.”
She shook her head, grumbling that she had other homework.
“Why not? You see my face every day, it’ll be easy.”
She groaned and flipped open her sketchbook. As Miro continued to draw, she sketched the general masses of his head and hair. Her eyes traced his outline and her hands translated them to paper. She captured the tip of his nose, the folds in his ears, the swoop of his eyelashes that cast subtle streaks of shadow down his cheeks under the icy light of his dorm. Every now and then, he’d tilt the plate of his face toward the ceiling to stretch his neck, and Darcy imagined him watching the moon somewhere above the roof.
A few minutes in, he quietly slid out of his T-shirt. All that rested on his chest was the small silver pendant she had bought for him for his birthday. Darcy had found it at a local antique store while looking for a cheap couch for her dorm room.
“So that you can finally reach your full indie-boy potential,” she had joked when she gave it to him. Seeing it now against his bare skin made her chest tighten.
“What are you doing?” she snapped. “Those old people must have really gotten to you—”
“Just draw me, Darcy.” His tone was impatient, almost harsh.
She quieted and gave in reluctantly, outlining the mounds of his shoulders, the ropy muscles in his biceps, the timid puffs of hair on his chest, the glimmer of the pendant against his skin. When she looked up again, he was staring at her, and her face grew hot.
“Let me see.” He leaned over the top edge of her sketchbook, their foreheads inches apart. Darcy tried to comprehend the unfamiliar speed of her own heart rate. She remembered the night after the party, how Miro had held her so close and kissed her so passionately.
Then she submitted to herself. The balmy night became one in which she could no longer distinguish the neutral comfort of another human being from the sort of affection that meant more. All she understood was that sitting in front of her was a person who clearly cared deeply and fixedly, a person opening himself without restraint, and for the moment, that felt like enough. She craved the physical contact that breathed security and validation deep into her lungs. So she leaned in.
While they kissed, she imagined loving him, walking around between classes with her hand in his, sleeping in the same twin bed every night as the other couples she knew at school did. She pictured it, and felt a tingling sensation growing within herself, something that spun and teetered with what must have been her heart as the fulcrum. She was terrified.
As Darcy took off her own shirt, she heard a voice in her head telling her you do love him, you do, you do, you do. But it was a voice, not a feeling, and the voice eventually relinquished itself to silence. Then she was left with herself, and her body, and his body — and with nowhere left to go she felt herself leaving her body behind, floating over it and watching herself, naked and rolling around an ugly carpet while kissing her best friend. Suddenly her stomach was filled with something that felt like shame, or guilt, or some awful combination of the two.
Returning to herself, she looked up into Miro’s closed eyelids and discomfort washed over her in nauseating waves. She laid a palm over Miro’s chest, catching the pendant and pressing it against him. She pressed until she was pushing, and then she pushed him off.
“Whoa, are you okay?” A look of panic set into Miro’s eyes. “Darcy, what’s going on?”
She stared. There was a red circular indentation where she had pressed the pendant into his chest. For half a second, she remembered reading on some tacky CVS greeting card that only the misfortunate and the blessed know how to laugh at themselves. Then she started laughing. And she laughed and she laughed until tears formed in her eyes, and then before either of them could tell what was happening, she was crying.
“Oh my god, did I hurt you? I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
And after a moment, he told her he loved her.
And she told him not to.
And he insisted he’d wait for her, even if it meant she’d never love him back.
And she told him that was ridiculous because they were only twenty years old, and they had only known each other a few years, and that he’d meet someone better.
She cried even harder, and part of her wished that she could be outside, somewhere cold and wet where her tears could be masked as weather, instead of under a gross fluorescent dorm light with a boy that she loved deeply, but not in that way, where he could see her sitting stupidly on his ugly grey carpet, confused and crying for no reason.
“I just wish… ” Miro started to say, but his voice trailed off.
Darcy put on her clothes and walked back to her dorm, leaving her drawing with him.
The next day, Bethany held office hours for the midterm project. Darcy was nearly finished. When she entered the art studio, she was the only student there.
Bethany’s eyes were red and puffy. She looked older and weaker than her usual self, and was gazing blankly at an easel set up in front of her as though she could see right through it. When Darcy let the door shut behind her, Bethany straightened herself and shook out her hair, rubbing her hands against the sides of her jeans.
“Darcy! What can I do for you?” Her voice was shrill.
“Just looking for some advice on my midterm.”
Bethany pursed her lips into a delicate smile. “Let’s see it.” She smacked her hand onto a table next to her own easel where she expected Darcy to lay out her work, and let her fingers slide off the surface one by one.
Darcy’s drawing was a muted forest stretching somberly toward a purple horizon. One of the models’ naked forms sprawled out awkwardly under one of the trees, staring up at its branches. Darcy frowned. The crisp, pale body stood out intrusively against the peaceful blend of color.
“Oh, how lovely,” Bethany cooed, smoothing out the paper. She pointed out a few areas that could be sharpened, places that needed a little more shadow. Darcy nodded along.
Bethany eventually raised an eyebrow, “Why didn’t you sign up for the advanced class? You obviously know what you’re doing.”
“My friend’s a beginner and wanted to try an art class. Thought we’d meet each other halfway.”
Darcy nodded, her stomach turning. She hadn’t seen or spoken to him since the night before.
“Funny, I thought you two were dating. Cute boy.” Bethany’s tired eyes glinted.
“No. Just friends.”
“Oh, come on. I was in college once too, you know!”
Darcy cleared her throat, laughing uncomfortably. “There’s really nothing going on, I swear.”
Leaning over her own drawing, Darcy noticed the easel Bethany had been staring at when she first walked in. On the sketchpad’s surface was a drawing of the most recent model with the red hair. Her face had been scribbled out.
“Beautiful sketch,” Darcy commented.
“Ah! Thank you. Just a little exploration of negative space. Thought I’d make use of the model while she was here.”
Darcy smiled awkwardly, eyeing the violent strikes of charcoal where the
woman’s head was supposed to be. “Speaking of the models, what I actually came here to ask about is whether I need to include the human body in my midterm drawing. The model feels out of place, so I was hoping I could just leave it out entirely.”
Bethany nodded slowly, “Right, I’m sorry about that. I really should keep better track of when the models are scheduled to come in so you have more time to prepare. Silly me!” She tossed a strand of hair over her shoulder and flashed her teeth.
Darcy straightened up and gazed at her quizzically, “They come in almost every single class.” There was a pause, and she prodded further. “If you don’t mind me asking, is there a reason for that?”
Bethany’s face darkened and relit like a flickering candle. For an instant, the redness in her eyes made it look as though she might cry, but her expression rearranged itself to its usual calm. “Drawing the human body is a great way to recognize basic forms in a subject.”
Darcy hadn’t eaten and was feeling lightheaded and queasy. She was in a foul mood, and in spite of Bethany’s peculiar distraughtness, she felt her own confusion border on impatience. “But they show up even for the classes where we don’t need them. Like for the abstract section, or the landscape pieces. No one even really draws them.”
Bethany heaved a deep sigh, her thin eyebrows furrowing into zigzags. “To be completely honest with you, Darcy, I don’t really know when they’re coming.”
“What do you mean?”
Bethany tapped her nails on the table and smoothed her hair, tucking loose strands behind her ears and biting her lip. “I’ve made some mistakes like any other woman has. You know what I mean.” She started fidgeting with things around her, organizing pencils on the desk, and then rearranging them. She pulled her skinny jeans higher up her waist.
“I’m not sure I do,” Darcy responded hesitantly.
Bethany sighed again, deeper. “I was married to a man I didn’t love.”
“And one day, the stars aligned and I crossed paths with someone whose soul matched mine — perfect reflections!” She stared off into the ceiling dramatically. “You should have seen it. The sparks, the energies. Everything about us fit perfectly.”
“I fell for him almost instantly. The temptation… It was a spiritual connection, too special to go to waste.”
“I followed my heart.”
“So you had an affair?” Darcy’s hand flew to her own mouth. She hadn’t intended to be so blunt. Bethany waved it off.
“Well, yes, but to be fair, you couldn’t possibly understand what it was like to be married to that man. Our parents set us up. They told me it was the only way I could pursue art seriously.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“All his complaining, all the time. He never credited me for my work or appreciated my art.” Bethany’s voice began to rise. “He’d — God, he’d wear street clothes in bed, his pants were always unzipped, his gut just grew and grew, and he wore these awful chartreuse button-ups… Can you imagine? Chartreuse button-ups?”
“No, I can’t say I—”
“And don’t get me started on his complete lack of sensuality.”
“I really don’t—”
“As if he could ever fully satisfy me emotionally. Or sexually! Ha! The man was about as lively as an ironing board. And I, the hot, steamy iron, ready to—” She stopped herself. “I’m sure you’re old enough to understand.” Bethany traced the edge of Darcy’s drawing absentmindedly and shifted her weight to her other leg so that her hip jutted out. Her face morphed from hysterical to brooding in the span of a few seconds. “I’m not much older than you, you know. Not even thirty-five yet.”
“Right. Of course… I’m not really sure I see how this connects with the models.”
“Well, you see,” Bethany exhaled, pinching at the bridge of her nose, “my ex-husband runs the biggest nude modeling agency in the state.”
Darcy blinked. It hadn’t ever occurred to her that there were agencies specifically for nude models.
“So you get them to come to your classes for free?”
“Mmm, that’s one way of putting it…” Bethany now rubbed her temples in slow circles. “Listen, I hope you won’t speak a word of this to any of the other students.”
Darcy nodded warily.
“I have a restraining order against Bill — my ex-husband. I left him, but he just couldn’t keep away. The police were involved, it was a whole mess. It was actually the inspiration behind my Red Period. Did you ever get a chance to see that exhibit? No? Shame. Some of my best work.”
“So he just sends you nude models now?”
“It’s his way of communicating, I suppose. Some weird form of a ‘fuck you and your appreciation for the human body!’ Or something.”
“Can’t you just report him?”
Bethany stared at her own sketch of the model, at its scribbly mess of a head. “Oddly enough, I feel as though I deserve it.”
“It’s the price I pay for… The affair, as you said. And maybe it’s not even punishment at all!” Bethany pulled her shoulders back so that her chest puffed. “The human body is beautiful. I’m lucky I get to admire it in so many forms.”
There was a brief pause while Bethany collected herself. “So the answer is yes.”
“Yes, you must keep the human form in the midterm drawing. I just decided.”
“Can I ask why?”
“It’s your punishment. And maybe your blessing!”
“Punishment for what?”
“Trust the process, honey. The human body will surprise you.”
Darcy had no idea what she meant, and almost wished she had never come to office hours. She packed up her things and had her hand on the door handle when Bethany called out her name once more.
“I’m sorry if I overshared,” she breathed. “It’s been a mess.”
Darcy gazed at Bethany, who looked small next to her easel, then released a weak smile. She nodded and told her it was no burden. She stepped out the door.
On her way back to her dorm, Darcy strode along slowly. The fresh air eased her headache and nausea marginally.
When she passed the campus cafe, she recognized the gentle tuft of Miro’s hair through the window. He was seated in a corner where he often did his homework, this time with three other people, and no laptops or books spread on the table. They were talking animatedly, waving their hands around and erupting in laughter. One of them was a girl Darcy recognized from one of her classes. She hadn’t realized they were friends.
Darcy watched them, relieved to see Miro laughing. The part of her that imagined him sulking alone in his room after her rejection and departure untethered itself from her chest, where it had clung tightly all day.
For an instant, her uneasiness melted into something warm and reassuring. When Miro had told her that he loved her the day before, he had said it with a subdued kind of desperation that almost made her feel like he’d be okay without her — a longing that was more about him than her.
She exhaled. Miro loved her because she was sitting right there, she told herself. He loved her because she had been right there from the start, ever since she called him over with that stupid bag of mandarins. If anyone else had been in her place for those years, he’d have loved them just the same.
For a few minutes, Darcy watched the four of them take sips from their paper cups of what must have been the cafe’s specialty lukewarm coffee. Miro often chewed the lip of his cup until it was ragged and unusable — something Darcy often chastised him for. She wondered if he was doing this now, but the thought of his mouth made her queasy all over again.
The girl from Darcy’s class tossed her head back in a glamorous laugh. She briefly laid a hand on Miro’s arm, and retracted it to take another sip of her coffee. Darcy turned away, feeling like she’d witnessed something she wasn’t supposed to see. She shook it off and kept walking.
She stopped at the fountain, and marveled at the way the floor of it glistened copper like the scales of a fish. So many pennies. She had never tossed any in before, and suddenly she had the urge to. She fished a coin from the loose change that lived at the bottom of her backpack and tossed it high in the air. The second it left her fingertips, she waited for a wish to come to her. The coin glimmered, turning once, twice, three times.
Wishing for money felt silly in the act of tossing a coin away. Instead, she thought about the man who would come to clean the fountain. The man who would collect the little pieces of copper and the wishes that weighed them down to the shallow depths of the water. She wondered again where these pennies would go.
When she got back to her room she unrolled her drawing once more. She pictured herself sprawled along the edge of her own forest, where the nude models’ faceless figure sat, gazing up at the leaves against the purple sky. With a marker from her desk, Darcy drew a copper-colored dot on one of the trees, so small that she could barely see it. She imagined it was a mandarin. Somewhere beneath the dirt, a part of someone was starting to grow.
My father’s voice bears the weight of indignant, violent memory a voice so heavy that he struggles to carry it it swells and collapses and sways and stirs, and I worry that he will fall right to the floor right down to the floor, there with his feet there with his head, here with me, A constant inclination for a cold, inhospitable, merciful floor And at the summits of the swells and the riverbeds of the valleys, At the apogee and at the anchorage, I worry
my father’s dead dog
so when the dog died at the ripe old age of twelve my father responded as he usually did, which was to sigh heavily, boil an egg for six minutes, and eat it in two bites. my mother always believed if you made hens lay eggs year-round, they’d run out, so in the winter my father would eat oranges instead like a monster: biting them whole, spitting out the rind. I peeled them hesitantly, and he beat me for the orange residue under my nails. my father loved that old dog. once my mother cursed it as she came around and found it licking rotten apples; my father loved that dog so he bought five apples at the grocery store, and forgot the bread. he used to crawl downstairs while my mother was asleep, so he could pet that dog, kiss that old dog, who slept so soundly. in the mornings I woke to see his body circled around the circle of that dog banished to the kitchen floor. I had to wake him back to my mother, place an old coat over the dog, so it would not stir. my father loved that dog, though he always knew his marriage would outlive it, that one day there would only be a cold bed, the white morning sky in the window, and no-dog curled in-between them, but possibly it was precisely because my father knew that dog would die in his lifetime, possibly he only loved it because he knew that sad beast would die someday soon, and after he had kissed it goodbye, he could get back to what mattered, things that would only last for as long as he had his mouth around them: bites out of covered fruit, full of seeds and rind. drinks from a boiled egg at night, tipping back the wet and yolky center, as he laughed, mouth wide, face up towards the yellow moon.
A symphony of plpleaseplease putputput on put on on yyour put on your youyou yourmask mmask youyourmask greets me while transferring from subway line 3 to line 9. Dubbed “hellway” by longtime Seoul residents, line 9 is the most crowded in the entire subway system. A mix of all-stop and express trains disorient riders, and a sea of Koreans flood the escalators whenever they get off a train. Until I first started working full-time in Seoul in 2019, I had never witnessed such homogeneous waves of people before. A stream of black-haired Asians morphed across paths and into stairways: everywhere you turned, your eyes would rest on the same characters.
During COVID-19, the resemblance between people grew stronger: dark hair, black parkas, white masks, and obscured faces. Silent and efficient, shuffling towards the next destination. The next short-term goal. In this chaotic city ritual, I could disappear into the cogs of the well-oiled machine — society — that we all promised to uphold. Most times, I reveled in the fast pace and carelessness of strangers around me. I felt efficient as I ran down the left lane of escalators, which everyone silently agreed to designate as the side for people in a hurry; the right side was reserved for people who wanted to stand still on the escalator. Running down the escalators signaled busyness, the drive behind someone with a packed schedule who couldn’t waste time idling on the right lane. No one stood still on the left lane; we all made way for each other, clearing out the path as quickly as possible for others.
In the summer of 2020, I always switched to subway line 9 in the “Express Bus Terminal” station. I was used to the procedure: jog up the stairs after getting out from line 3, pull out my subway card as I walk in order to save time, tap the card and walk through the turnstile without pause, race down the escalator, and try to catch the express train. After rushing down the incredibly long escalator, I found myself in a gigantic open space with clean white tiles and impossibly high ceilings, with the sci-fi grandiosity of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I took in the strange dystopian beauty of this platform during a few seconds of walking, then headed down the second flight of escalators to finally arrive at the subway.
Chaos makes this station simultaneously hell and a highway to hell. I always discreetly smirk at how we all look the same: a stark contrast from the vibrant diversity of American cities I’m used to. Then, I smile a little less widely as I observe people in their 20s who are numb from the repetitiveness of 9-6 jobs they don’t want to be stuck in. When I settle into the tightly-bunched-together rows of seats, I look around for a few seconds at everyone escaping into digital worlds on their phones. A few minutes of distraction, texting, and catching up on TV shows before boring office jobs. At the same time, their predictable motions of taking out phones from their pockets and putting on AirPods feel painfully banal to me. However, those passengers would probably describe both as activities ridden with anxiety. You can’t exactly enjoy a reality TV show when the screeching of subway wheels seep into your ears, and you have to listen to overhead announcements to see if they call out the name of your stop, or you have to feel the familiar duration of the trip with every cell in your body to “automatically” know when to get off. It requires attention, focus. Even during escape.